Today, I'm reviewing How Green Was My Valley, starring Walter Pidgeon (left) and Roddy McDowall. This film about life in a Welsh coal-mining village won the 1941 Academy Award for best picture.
Today, How Green Was My Valley is often remembered as a trivia item because it was the film that defeated Citizen Kane for the 1941 Best Picture Oscar. However, this timeless story of life in a 19th century Welsh coal-mining village is more than a mere footnote in movie history. How Green Was My Valley was John Ford's favorite among his own movies, and it is still one of the best works in the great director's filmography that touches upon his favored themes of family, community, and the encroaching terrors of modern life.
How Green Was My Valley tells the story of Huw Morgan (Roddy McDowall), the youngest son in a large family of coal miners who lives in a small village in South Wales. The film follows Huw as he experiences the pleasures and pains of growing up, while his long-suffering parents (Donald Crisp and Sara Allgood) deal with a series of crippling labor strikes and his sister Angharad's (Maureen O'Hara) unhappy marriage to the mine owner's son (Marten Lamont).
How Green Was My Valley, which is based on a best-selling 1939 novel by Richard Llewellyn, was the pet project of 20th Century Fox chief Darryl Zanuck. He loved the sentimental story, and he paid a record sum for the film rights. Zanuck's original plan was to make a four-hour Technicolor epic a la Gone With the Wind (1939) on location in South Wales.
Zanuck's big dreams soon fell flat when World War II began in September 1939, which nixed location shooting in Great Britain, and Fox shareholders soundly rejected the project during a corporate meeting. The shareholders, who were mostly conservative New York businessmen, felt Zanuck's grand vision was too expensive, and they also disliked the pro-union tone of the script.
However, all of this opposition only made Zanuck more determined to bring How Green Was My Valley to the big screen. He decided to move ahead with the project with a vastly reduced budget. He nixed Technicolor in favor of black and white cinematography, cut the script in half, built a replica of a Welsh village in the hills outside Malibu, and, most importantly, hired John Ford as the director. Ford, who had already won two best director Oscars, was not only a visual genius, but he could also turn in a movie on time and under budget, even if it meant ripping pages out of the script. According to an article on the TCM database, Ford once settled a dispute with Allgood over whether a scene would "play" by ripping pages out of the script and saying, "now it will play." (Another great Ford anecdote, told by director and film historian Peter Bogdanovich in the documentary series AMC Backstory, explains the director's no-frills style. When cinematographer Arthur Miller asked whether Ford would like a closeup of Walter Pidgeon in a pivotal scene, he curtly replied, "No, they [Fox executives] will probably just go and use it.")
How Green Was My Valley was one of the happiest film making experiences of Ford's career, and he often cited it as his personal favorite among his own movies. It was rapturously received by critics and audiences alike in 1941, and the film received 10 Oscar nominations and won five, including best picture, best director, and best supporting actor for Crisp. How Green Was My Valley holds up extremely well in 2015 even when compared with the vast legacy of Citizen Kane. While the sprawling saga of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane is the greatest American film ever made, How Green Was My Valley is a more intimate masterwork touching on themes of home and family that are perhaps more easily understood by average moviegoers than Kane's focus on an eccentric, art-collecting billionaire's search for happiness.
In many ways, How Green Was My Valley is one of Ford's most visually stunning films. Every shot in the film is composed like an old master painting, especially Angharad's wedding scene and the final sequence, which borrows heavily from Catholic iconography. Although How Green Was My Valley does have several chapel scenes, it isn't an overtly religious film. Instead, it takes much of its quasi-religious philosophy from the 19th century English poet William Blake, who railed against industrialization in poems like "Jerusalem." The movie begins in a "green and pleasant" village where daffodils bloom on the hillside, but, as the demand for coal increases, smoke and slag fill the once idyllic spot until the film ends in a fiery explosion down a hellish mineshaft.
The film is considerably helped by several brilliant performances, especially from Allgood as the Morgan family matriarch, Pidgeon as an impoverished but noble clergyman, and McDowall, who ties the entire movie together with an emotionally intuitive performance as Huw.
How Green Was My Valley is available on DVD, Blu-ray, and video on demand.
You can check out my 31 Days of Oscar blogathon entry on the 1941 best actor race here.